When Tom Mueller grew up in St. Maries, his logger father hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. A guidance counselor urged him to become an airplane mechanic. But his math teacher asked if he was going to become an engineer. Mueller replied “no” because he didn’t know what an engineer was. The teacher then asked a question that change Mueller’s life: “Do you want to be the guy who fixes the plane or the guy who designs it?”
Inspired, Mueller graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in mechanical engineering and went on to become one of the founders of SpaceX and one of the leading rocket propulsion experts in the world.
“No one had told me that I had the aptitude to be an engineer. … That teacher changed my life and set me on a path to success,” Mueller told the University of Idaho’s 2018 graduating class.
The Tom Mueller story shows why education is so important to an individual’s future, and to Idaho’s future. His story is also why it’s so disconcerting to hear people say that our postsecondary institutions have “hell to pay” in the upcoming legislative session.
These people want the Legislature to retaliate against the institutions because of their so-called “socialist” diversity and inclusion programs that recognize the importance of helping first-generation students, rural students, veterans and students of color succeed. For the record, if diversity and inclusion programs are socialist, then many of Idaho’s leading companies must be socialists too, because they believe these programs are key to their success. Part of education’s job is to prepare students for an increasingly diverse workplace.
If lawmakers retaliate, they will hurt students and weaken the very institutions that have served Idaho’s farmers, ranchers, loggers, businesses—even our legislatures and governors—since before statehood. In short, the stakes are very high.
Idaho needs 60 percent of our citizens to hold a postsecondary credential to create the workforce we need. We cannot get there unless we have strong institutions of postsecondary education.
In the 21st century, human talent will be the most important driver of economic vitality. That was underscored by a report issued last year by Idaho Business for Education and HP Inc., in which business leaders said the lack of skilled workers was their No. 1 problem. San Francisco Federal Reserve President Mary Daly says America’s post-pandemic economic recovery depends on a skilled workforce.
There is further evidence that education in general is the best investment we can make because of the dividends it pays to the individual who gets it and for society at large.
During the past two recessions, the unemployment rate was twice as high for those with a high school diploma as it is for those with a college degree. The average annual earnings for someone with a high school diploma is $38,792, compared to $77,844 for a college graduate.
Armed with a postsecondary credential, a person is more likely to be employed, earn considerably more, pay more taxes and rely less on expensive health care and government programs over their lifetime.
This winter, lawmakers will face many decisions as they help Idaho rebound from the pandemic, but retaliation should not be on their list. Instead, they should look at our institutions as the best investment to ensure that Idaho and its citizens have a prosperous future—and to help students like Tom Mueller achieve their American Dream and change the world.
Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.